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Senate Dems: We're getting less confident that Manchin's a true progressive, or something

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Give Democratic leadership credit — they are at least consistent in their cluelessness. Having spent months talking around Joe Manchin and other moderates in their caucus, they have constantly insisted that unity would prevail over policy and over constituencies in red-to-purple states. Even after Manchin consistently refused to go along with budgetary tricks, repeatedly stated his maximum budget for reconciliation, and furthermore stood fast on a refusal to cooperate with any “nuclear option” on a filibuster carve-out, Chuck Schumer pretended that Manchin wasn’t serious about any of it.

Now Schumer’s promise to hold a vote on the federal takeover of elections and attempt a nuclear option looks a lot like a cliff, and his caucus the collective equivalent of Wile E. Coyote. The Hill reports that some of Schumer’s colleagues are suspicious of his Acme plans, and are beginning to wonder whether Manchin really wants to help them implement the progressive agenda.

What was your first clue?

Senate Democrats are growing less and less confident about whether Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) wants to strike a legislative deal with President Biden.

The lack of negotiations with Manchin since Congress returned from the Christmas recess and Manchin’s definitive statements of opposition are raising serious doubts about whether he would be willing to support any version of the Build Back Better Act, which would provide new funding for healthcare, child care and host of other initiatives.

Manchin says he has tried to be as clear as possible about where he is, but fellow Senate Democratic colleagues feel confused about whether the West Virginia senator can be counted on to support some version of Biden’s sweeping agenda. …

Other Democrats are growing skeptical of Manchin’s motives and wonder if he’ll ever get pinned down to something specific.

“It’s not like a normal negotiation and that’s what is frustrating Biden and frustrating everybody,” said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity to discuss doubts about whether Manchin is negotiating with a real end goal in mind. …

“I have no reason to think that he does, literally no reason to think that he does,” said a second Democratic senator, who also pointed out that Manchin hasn’t showed any serious intention to pass Build Back Better or change the Senate rules to overcome a GOP filibuster against voting rights legislation.

Ahem. You know who’s been saying all along that he doesn’t have any interest in changing Senate rules on the filibuster? Joe Manchin. And not just this year, but all the way back to 2013, when he voted against Harry Reid’s precedent-setting maneuver. Every time Manchin has been asked, he has consistently opposed Schumer’s attempts to gut the filibuster. His ideas on reform are to limit cloture votes to only the actual vote rather than a second one on opening debate, and as he has said consistently, Manchin only wants to proceed on that reform with the cooperation of Republicans under traditional supermajority rules-changes votes.

As for the bill, Manchin might have been more inclined to support it had Democrats negotiated it with him from the beginning. Instead, Schumer put it together with Nancy Pelosi and created a progressive wish list for its social engineering and somehow expected Manchin to just go along. Not only could they have crafted something that could pass up front without all of this drama, Manchin might have helped make it a bill that would, y’know, do something for his own constituents by being part of the process up front rather than having to fight after the fact.

Charles Lane pointed out this basic political failure last month in the Washington Post. “The only surprise in this situation,” Lane drily observed, “is that people are surprised — or claiming to be” about Manchin’s position on the BBB:

There would have to be a lot in BBB for his home state to overcome Manchin’s ostensible concerns about inflation and such. There’s not: To the contrary, it’s hard to imagine a bill that would have been more difficult for any senator from West Virginia, Democrat or Republican, to support.

It’s quite clear what’s in BBB for New York, California and New Jersey. …

The point here is not to endorse Manchin’s “no” on BBB. It’s true, as Manchin’s critics assert, that West Virginians could benefit from letting Medicare bargain for lower drug costs, or from an expanded child tax credit, and that Manchin’s objections could doom those.

What matters politically, though, is that these benefits are not uniquely advantageous for his state — whereas other provisions are particularly disadvantageous, or could plausibly be portrayed as such by Manchin’s opponents. That was still true even after the White House removed a $150 billion clean-electricity provision at Manchin’s request.

At times, Manchin’s motivations for resisting BBB have been portrayed as a “mystery.” The real mystery is why the White House and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) bet their political future on getting Manchin to vote for a bill such as this one.

One has to wonder whether The Hill’s theme of a crisis of confidence is correct but misplaced. The problem isn’t Manchin, who’s the only Democrat who can still win a statewide election in West Virginia. It’s the Wile E. Coyote leadership about to run them off the cliff described by Punchbowl:

It’s a week of reckoning for Democrats on Capitol Hill. And there’ll be a final tribute to the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the Rotunda on Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Reid’s successor, has promised to force a vote on voting rights legislation by Jan. 17. Republicans are uniformly opposed and will filibuster any Democratic attempts to standardize the nation’s election laws. Schumer has warned he’ll then try to alter Senate rules to rein in the filibuster.

But Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) isn’t only opposed to scrapping the filibuster, he’s opposed to changing the chamber’s rules without Republican buy-in. He’s not willing to go “nuclear” – revising the Senate’s rules with just 50 votes. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has also said she wants to keep the 60-vote threshold for cloture. So Schumer’s in a jam. …

We don’t expect Schumer to lay out any floor schedule on these votes until after the Biden speech. So this will be a closely watched event. Can Biden make a strong argument on voting rights or potential Senate rules changes on the filibuster? Will it matter?

Spoiler alert: No he can’t and no it won’t. If Biden really wanted to move Manchin, he’d be giving that speech in West Virginia, not Georgia. Why isn’t Biden doing that? Because he’s already deeply unpopular in West Virginia, and that kind of stunt might force Manchin to flip parties now to maintain his own political viability.

Besides, any plan that relies on the fumbling Biden to score a touchdown with a speech is a plan that’s doomed to failure. Democrats just spent all last week whipping up hysteria over the January 6 riots, and not only hasn’t it moved the needle on public support, most voters tuned out. Literally.

Senate Democrats should feel a crisis in confidence, but with Schumer and Biden, not Manchin.